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Big tech needs local talent. Here’s how they are creating it in the Middle East

From Google’s support for Palestinian tech grads to Huawei’s tools for hybrid classrooms, global tech giants

Big tech needs local talent. Here’s how they are creating it in the Middle East
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

That regional super-app you order food or make payments through was probably inspired by the world’s first super app developed elsewhere. AI being used in driverless cars, or even that chatbot that assists you on e-commerce sites was tried and tested in the west. Cloud services in the Middle East are largely driven by international tech firms such as Google and Microsoft.

Yes, linear algebra, which powers machine learning, was invented by Al Khwarizmi in the Middle East. But it has evolved a lot since the west adopted it, and it’s time that the spirit of innovation returns to the region. Thriving on tech imports from across the globe, the Arab world must nurture its own innovators, to create a knowledge economy.

The region is a leading player in technology adoption. No wonder tech giants like Microsoft, Huawei, AWs and Oracle are now offering everything from cloud computing to automation in the region.

The UAE will soon grow its fresh produce and achieve food security via American agritech Aerofarms. Virgin Hyperloop is building high-speed transport at Abu Dhabi’s innovation hub, Technology Innovation Institute.

The UAE has achieved self-reliance in the space race by building its satellite and sending its astronauts to NASA. Abu Dhabi has become a fertile ground for foreign tech startups to flourish with Hub71. The country is wooing 100,000 coders with golden visas. But is the region’s tech talent ready to support digitization and innovation in the region for decades to come?

Innovation in AI, 3D printing, development of tech services, and now the metaverse is attracting the youth and Institutions such as the world’s first AI university, Mohamed Bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence (MBZUAI), in Abu Dhabi offer new opportunities. 

IBM, which had opened an innovation center in Abu Dhabi back in 2018, has now partnered with MBZUAI. With an aim to support scientific breakthroughs and use AI for addressing major challenges, the collaboration will connect researchers from IBM with faculty and students at MBZUAI. Projects in focus include developing natural language processing for Arabic.

Saudi Arabia is implementing Saudization in tech, which means firms operating in the kingdom must hire local talent. If other Gulf countries follow suit, empowering a whole generation of Middle Eastern tech students.

It’s not just CSR, major global companies are fostering tech innovation among the Middle Eastern youth. They provide funds and technology and are involved in encouraging young inventors.

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PROVIDING HOPE TO A COMMUNITY VIA TECH

Palestinians have been plagued by conflict, eviction, and blockades for decades. But that didn’t stop Palestinians like Loay Elbasyouni, who worked on NASA’s helicopter designed for Mars. This potential prompted Google to invest $10 million in a three-year program to train tech graduates and app developers. It’ll also back entrepreneurs to create a startup ecosystem in Palestine.

A push by Google’s American employees to support Palestinians last year may have led to this move.

Most of the 3500 tech graduates that Palestine produces yearly migrate to other countries. About 1000 work remotely for firms abroad, and many leave the tech sector.

In Lebanon, non-profits such as Jobs for Lebanon highlight the demand for the region’s tech talent. “Most of the demand for professionals comes from tech. There’s a high demand for software engineers and shortage as well,” says Neal El Jor, founder of Jobs for Lebanon.

Following the cultural shift in Saudi Arabia, Apple has stepped in to empower women as part of the kingdom’s vision 2030. The tech giant opened its first-ever all-female developer academy in Riyadh this year. Apart from the basics of coding, the trainees will learn about marketing and project management to evolve as entrepreneurs. Along with 600 students expected to attend every year, 70% of the trained mentors for Apple’s academy will also be women.

BUILDING CLASSROOMS OF THE FUTURE

The pandemic highlighted the role of hardware and gadgets in education when pushing schooling online. In the post-lockdown world, private schools in the Middle East favor hybrid classrooms. Smartboards and online sharing are ideal tools for students using visual learning through computer screens. Chinese firm Huawei has signed a deal to supply these tools and more to Egyptian schools.

Huawei’s interactive whiteboard IdeaHub broadcasts video lessons in 4K and has real-time page-turning for online collaboration. Low-latency means text written by teachers appears on the board without any time lag. As some students attend classes at home, conferencing and HiFi sound ensure they don’t miss face-to-face lessons.

Huawei’s Skoolix platform is also a part of the deal with Egyptian firm Pharos. It allows teachers to share notes and homework with students via apps. Seamless communication ensures that parents can access report cards directly, to know about a child’s progress. Students, teachers, and parents can give input for improvement through online polls on the platform.

As for regions beyond the developed economies of the Gulf,  El Jor highlights the relevance of edtech by revealing that “Teaching has opened up, with opportunities for online tutoring” for remote job seekers.

HOLISTIC ECOSYSTEM FOR TECH INNOVATION

Microsoft has a diverse portfolio among tech firms, from gaming consoles to laptops and cloud services. In education, it has multiple initiatives, including training teachers in the Middle East to use Microsoft’s tech tools. Last year, GEMS Education in the UAE used Microsoft’s Azure Cloud to connect students and teachers. Azure allows schools to set up online training labs and organize competitions that help students innovate.

Microsoft recently hosted a tournament in Qatar, where university students used its tech to create innovative solutions. Qatari youth also received virtual training from the firm and sat for exams to gain certification.

Through its platform LinkedIn, Microsoft also empowered quarter-million professionals in the UAE. The candidates were able to sharpen their digital skills to keep up with fast-paced digitization.

Microsoft also backs startups through its GrowthX initiative, which provides know-how on accelerating sales cycles to new ventures. The program has workshops training entrepreneurs to adapt their tech innovations in line with the needs of the consumers. The selected startups connect with the best in tech and get $25000 worth of free Azure cloud credits, and licenses for Github and Microsoft 365.

CODERS IN THE DESERT

Attracting 100,000 coders across the globe is just step one of UAE’s massive tech revolution. It has brought Microsoft, Amazon, Google, and Facebook together to train these tech professionals. The national program for coders will then fund the coders to set up 1000 tech startups in the UAE.

Late in 2021, Google launched a three-month program to accelerate startups in the Middle East and North Africa. The selected firms received guidance from the best at Google and its network of mentors in tech including AI, cloud, Android and Google Play. Apart from technical support, entrepreneurs received access to workshops for customer acquisition, leadership development and product design.

This means supporting young talent from their initial training to the point where they monetize their skills.

Highlighting the role of the remote working revolution in nurturing fresh talent across the Middle East, EL Jor adds how, in Lebanon, “there are opportunities in digital marketing, design, and the creative sector as well.”

Governments in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE encourage students to innovate with the same zeal as they adopt new technology. Big tech is setting up data centers and a whole infrastructure to satiate the region’s appetite for digitization. The coders, developers, AI innovators, and space-tech talent they empower will emerge as their future workforce.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aiyub Dawood is a Senior Correspondent at Fast Company Middle East, who looks for practical application of technology. He explores the use of AI, innovation and data to solve everyday problems. More

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